Feline Fever: Calling Cats
By Troy Hoepker
Minutes of boredom followed by moments of exhilaration! That’s the feeling that accompanies calling bobcats. My heart began beating in a higher gear when I first spotted a feline bounding over the corn stubble towards my position. Their bounce is unmistakable. The next 20 minutes would give me a great look into a bobcat’s predatory behavior.
An hour earlier, I had pulled my old iron sighted Winchester ’94 from it’s case, loaded up a few 30-30 rounds and headed over the hill from my pickup to try and get the drop on an old coyote. It was the end of January and even though I knew bobcats were near to this farm, coyotes were my objective.
With a gusty wind from the West, I put myself deep in the heart of a section where thorny locust trees and multi-flora rose bushes met a small open cornfield in Madison County. Finally finding a spot to my liking, I hung the caller in a tree 30 yards inside the timber edge and sat down so I could see to shoot both 40 yards into the timber and 70 yards the opposite way out across the cornfield to my East incase a coyote tried to get my wind. Fifteen minutes and a couple of sound changes later, Momma kitty made her arrival.
Watching the cat quickly maneuver around the corn stalks to get to the treeline as fast as she could and then turn into a slow, super-stalking predator once inside the timber was quite a sight! It was like the tale of two cats, no pun intended. As soon as she hit the timber edge, eyes and ears trained intently on the tree that held my caller, she carefully placed each footstep all while being an inch or so off the ground making her slow stalk. It took her a couple of minutes to close the last 30 yards. I was able to get a short video clip and then began snapping photos.
Finally at the base of the tree with the caller still blaring out dying screams, she looked straight up to where it hung. I muted it in fear that she would leap up and cause damage to my little noisemaker. Still, she remained, intensely trained on the caller for several minutes. Finally, her little bobbed tail began to nervously twitch back and forth. I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I imagined that she was thinking she’d been had.
Not knowing what to do, she slowly moved off to my West, where she sat and looked around for over fifteen minutes only 27 steps from me. Occasionally she would stare right at me but never spooked away. All the while, I kept snapping photos and relishing in the experience. The fact that it was January and the Iowa bobcat season had closed two months prior never disappointed me. I felt lucky to have the experience. Finally she began to move off and simply melted into the light brush no more than 40 yards away.
Don’t forget that in Iowa a furharvester license is required to hunt bobcats. Also check the DNR’s regulations for specific details on harvesting a bobcat including the zones open for hunting, how to check the quota status daily and the proper procedures to follow once you’ve hopefully bagged that cat. So with the season just around the corner, let’s get into some details about how you too can call up one of these kitties.
Find the Hot Spots
Just like coyotes, success with bobcats begins with finding them. Or maybe it is better to say, finding where they’ve been? Locating them is not as easy as finding coyotes. They’re obviously not as plentiful, but looking for tracks is where success begins. Bobcats leave a rounded track with four toe marks and typically have no claw marks visible. Look for a distinct “M” shaped pattern to the rear of their six lobed paw print. Once you’ve found tracks, you’re in the game. Also, speak with the landowners, farmers, mail carriers and such in an area. Often times these fine people have put me on good “cat farms” in the past. Everyone usually enjoys retelling of their sightings and they are just as interesting to hear.
Let’s say you’ve located a hot spot or two. Now what? It’s time to get in there with the right game plan. Scouting the property for good places to set up can be done on foot and by looking at aerial maps of the property. I like to find areas that are good bobcat cover and habitat. This would include a mix of timber, heavy grass, maybe a small open field or two and a water source like a river or creek. Brush piles are also a great place to find a cat. Anywhere there is good rabbit habitat.
Setting up for calling cats can be achieved in the same way that you would for calling coyotes. With that said though, I like to set up for cats a little differently most of the time believing that a few changes can make a big difference. Coyotes may sometimes travel a long distance to come to you, whereas a bobcat may not cover quite as much ground. A coyote will try and get down wind of you part of the time but a cat will rarely use the wind. They just don’t have the nose that a coyote does. Coyotes use their nose, ears and eyes. Bobcats use their eyes and ears. Bobcats are very visually stimulated. A hunter should use that knowledge to his advantage.
I’ve found that calling a cat in cover is a very successful way to get one to come in. When a cat is in his natural habitat where he feels safe, he’ll move during daylight hours. As a matter of fact, calling in cover during midday is my favorite time to call them. Finding small little areas within timber or in very close proximity to heavy cover where you have enough visibility to shoot a short distance has become areas that I look hard for. Be near things like brush piles or deep ravines and ditches. The thicker and nastier, the better sometimes but just give yourself an area to be able to see their approach and shoot. I like to set up a little “kill zone” within these areas to draw the cat into it.
Another little tip that I’ve found to be successful is that once you’ve found a hot spot where there’s plenty of sign and sightings, don’t be afraid to overcall that area. Bobcats are much more forgiving than coyotes when it comes to calling pressure on one certain section or two. If you’ve tried one side of the area and had no luck, don’t be afraid to keep working your way around the area setting up to call several different places. You may need to get in close to them to draw them out. I also like to find a river or creek with timbered riverbanks and begin on one end and start calling my way down the river.
When I sit down in cat country, I look for a place to sit with something that really breaks up my outline. It’s extremely important to have some good cover behind you. I like to sit in the shade and not have the sun in my eyes. Even though I never use a facemask for coyotes, I would consider using one when calling for a bobcat sound advise. The main thing though, is keeping movement to an absolute minimum. You never know when a bobcat may be just sitting there watching you.
How They Act
I like to say that a bobcat will have three stages to its approach. Depending on the terrain and how you set up, you may see any one of the three stages. The first stage is a cat moving quickly to cover some ground to get to the source of sound. Once a cat hears your first sounds he will likely move quickly to close in on the general area while he can still hear it. Remember a cat doesn’t use its nose to find the prey like a coyote so he’ll cover some ground quickly to get in close proximity of the noise he’s hearing. If you’re set up in a more open area over a harvested field or pasture you may see the cat coming from a ways off in this stage.
Once the cat gets to the immediate area, he’ll likely slow down or stop especially if you’ve muted the caller. It’s an extremely common thing to hear callers describe this second stage of approach. They’ll tell of not even knowing the cat was there until they stood up to leave and then they saw it spook away. It’s happened to me and it’s disappointing.
Bobcats can be wary. Often times when they get to a spot where they can see the area where the sound came from, they stop and just survey the situation at the edge of cover or just inside the cover. If you’ve ever witnessed how well a bobcat can blend in to its surroundings then you know how hard they can be to spot. I try to set up so I eliminate this stage from happening as much as possible.
The third stage we sometimes witness is their final approach to the call to stalk the prey. Likely, this is when the caller is running or when you’re in the act of blowing on a call. Being a visual and auditory hunter, a cat will likely move on sound and do one of two things in this stage, either stalk in slowly like the cat in my story did or come charging hard towards the sound. I’ve had them do both. Both are exciting to watch.
Cats love the music of frantic distress cries. The key to cats is pouring it on! They have much shorter attention spans than a coyote. With coyotes, I sometimes say less is more, but the opposite seems to be true with cats. E-callers can work magic on cats! They get the sound off of you and direct your prey’s attention elsewhere and they can do the work instead of leaving you out of breath with mouth calls. Sure, I’ve called bobcats in after sporadic calling but by letting the caller play almost continuously, I’ve found that it helps to eliminate that second stage of approach I mentioned earlier which is having a cat just sit at the edge of cover watching, thereby increasing his odds of busting you.
Short calling sequences with long gaps in between lead a cat into boredom and it really is bewildering how easily they can become sidetracked with something else of interest to them. Bobcats have a hunting tendency to seek out and kill prey while it’s making screams of distress instead of trying to search for it later after it’s gone quiet.
Continuous sound keeps them on the move, which makes them easier to spot. E-callers have a variety of sounds that work well and it’s fine to change up the sounds two or three times on stand. The most important thing however is keeping the caller hidden and running a majority of the time. Hanging your caller in a tree or on the ground partially concealed is a good idea so that a cat will be motivated to come as close to it as possible to see what it is.
A variety of distress sounds can work on a cat and I’m often asked what sounds are best to use. I like excited, frenzied sounds. Something with a nice assortment of a rough, raspy sound but including shrieks or higher pitched shrill sounds as well. If you have a Foxpro, the “Lightning Jack” or “Scream-N-Rabbit” play listings have probably called as many cats as any on the market but don’t be afraid to experiment with any busy rabbit distress call.
Bird distress can also be a great cat coaxer. I like woodpecker distress noises and other active, high-pitched sounds. I’m sure many of you have messed with your pet cat or the neighbor’s pet cat by using a weird high pitched sound and watched their reaction. Bobcats will act just the same. They become mesmerized by it.
There really is nothing in Iowa quite like the thrill of calling a bobcat! With their expanding population growth, especially in the Southern and Western parts of the state, you might just be surprised when you go coyote calling and you get a different breed of dinner guest to show up for the meal. Hopefully some of these tips can help but as far as helping you with that shaking gun barrel when you’ve got that cat in your sights at the moment of truth? Well …….. you’re on your own on that one!